Anatomy of a Hatchet Job

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Spoiler Warning

This essay contains spoilers for my novel Incandescence, and probably won’t make a lot of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book.

“This room smells of mathematics!
Go out and fetch a disinfectant spray!” [1]

— A.H. Trelawney Ross,
Alan Turing’s form master

In the two decades or so during which I’ve been a professionally published author, my work has received many generous and perceptive reviews, alongside a number with precisely the opposite qualities. I’m grateful for the first kind, and not greatly surprised by the second. As with the wider population, the people who read, write, edit and review science fiction include a significant proportion with no knowledge of, or interest in, the universe they inhabit — and within that group, a smaller but still substantial number who treat any such interest with contempt. Given that much of what I write is coming from the position that mathematics and the natural sciences are intrinsically interesting, and are as suitable as the central concerns of fiction as anything else, when the result is reviewed by someone who has about as much passion for these things as I have for opera or baseball, a clash of expectations is inevitable.

Of course, I find it easy to arrange my life to avoid opera and baseball, whereas professional science fiction reviewers might not always have the luxury of choice. In rare cases, the result can be a gracious admission by the reviewer that they’re in no position to say anything relevant about the work — much as I’d have nothing to say, myself, if I’d been mistakenly assigned to review Elke Neidhardt’s Adelaide production of the Ring Cycle (don’t worry, I had no idea there’d been any such thing until a spot of Googling a few seconds ago) or to give a running commentary on this year’s World Series championship. More often, though, human nature being what it is, a reviewer in this situation will be obliged by their ego to start hallucinating genre-spanning competence, and will emit various kinds of bluster or venom as compensation for the unwelcome experience they’ve been forced to endure.

This can be entertaining at times. The various spiritual heirs of A.H. Trelawney Ross have convinced themselves that the particular set of half-digested factoids in their possession perfectly delineates the proper amount of science that can be known by a truly civilised person and discussed in polite company — where “polite company” might mean “among Doctor Who fans down the pub” or “in the English Department common room” or whatever particular social milieu the reviewer identifies with most strongly. Anything else is beyond the pale, and the heirs of AHTR have developed a whole elaborate demonology to deal with work that oversteps these boundaries, and the people who want to foist too much science into the brains of pure and decent science fiction readers. These days there’s often ranting about “nerds” and “geeks” — terms that the world would be better off without, though I have to admit there’s something gloriously awful, in a Love And Death on Long Island kind of way, when would-be sophisticates who spend half their time discussing Joyce or Sophocles switch to a vocabulary whose current usage was largely forged in the supremely inane universe of American high school cliques.

If hostility is only to be expected, a quality I find far more disillusioning in reviews is sheer carelessness. About half the reviews of Incandescence made at least one of the following false assertions:

  • The Splinter orbits a neutron star.
  • Rakesh visits the Splinter.
  • The relationship between the novel’s two threads is never revealed.
  • The reader learns nothing about the Aloof.

One reviewer even stated confidently that the Splinter was facing a cataclysmic collision with “a rock”. Remind me not to go within a hundred million kilometres of anything this man calls “a rock”.

Many of these reviews were actually quite positive, and some that weren’t were clearly written in good faith, so these mistakes were not (or not mostly) a matter of deliberate misrepresentation. Some reviewers might be under absurd time pressures, or face various distractions and obstacles that prevent them from giving a book the attention it requires. But I believe the bottom line is this: If someone starts a book, gets bored, skims it, and ends up knowing absolutely nothing about the denouement, then of course they’re entitled to have a whine on their personal blog about how tedious the whole experience was. But if someone aspires to be taken seriously as a reviewer, they either need to read the entire book, carefully, and give at least as much thought to what they’ve read as a twelve-year-old would when sitting a reading comprehension test, or — if that prospect is far too unpleasant to bear — they should decline to review the book.

Of all the reviews of Incandescence rendered irrelevant by hostility or carelessness, one stands out from the rest. In fact, I believe this particular review is probably the first genuine hatchet job I’ve ever received.

There is no precise, generally accepted definition of the term hatchet job, so I’m going to feel free to specify my own. The distinguishing quality, I’d contend, is not the intensity of the review’s invective, but rather the degree to which the reviewer attempts to bolster their position by mounting culpably weak arguments against pretty much everything in the book. No matter how much the reviewer loathes the book, if they possess the self-discipline (and the logical and rhetorical skills) to state the reasons for their verdict honestly and precisely, the result is not a hatchet job; it’s simply a negative review, and there are no circumstances when a reviewer is not entitled to write a negative review. A hatchet job results only when the reviewer is so unsatisfied with the actual reasons for their loathing that they start scrabbling around desperately and finding fault with everything in sight, regardless of merit.

Of course, there might be books where everything from the typeface to the character’s names really is worthy of derision, but a good rule of thumb remains: if the reviewer employs special pleading — appealing to tendentious “rules” or logically spurious arguments that not only lack general support, but that even the very same person would be unlikely to invoke in any other case — you have a hatchet job.

The remainder of this essay won’t make much sense unless you read the review in question by Adam Roberts, on the Strange Horizons web site.

First, Roberts tells us that the central flaw of Incandescence is that “everything is explained all the time all the way through”. It’s certainly true that nothing that is known to the protagonists is withheld from the reader, and Roberts — who makes it plain that he has no knowledge of or interest in science — finds a transparent, unobfuscated view over the shoulders of characters who are struggling to uncover the nature of their world enough to bore him out of his skull. Roberts would prefer a long, convoluted narrative strip-tease, as in Lost (which for all its virtues is not many people’s model of judicious revelatory pacing); he’s entitled to his preferences, of course, but the irony is that the reader ends Incandescence knowing several crucial things that remain hidden from the protagonists. No doubt Roberts would be uninterested in these revelations too, but from his comments it seems unlikely that he was ever aware of them.

So far, so ordinary; an heir of A.H. Trelawney Ross collides with a book “to which adheres the odour of fourth-form school physics labs”, proclaims in scandalised tones that “the novel’s real interest is the process of enquiry itself” (emphasis in the original), and declares with pompous finality:

Science is the enemy of mystery. Fiction, however, requires a degree of negative capability immiscible with the scientific method.

In short, Roberts has as much of a good time as I’d have at the Bayreuth Festival, and as little worth reporting about the experience. The mystery is why he bought the ticket in the first place; a previous encounter with Schild’s Ladder should have warned off any but the most masochistic of science-haters.

What turns the review into a hatchet job, though, is that Roberts seeks to shore up his negative opinion of the book by finding as many other things to complain about as he can. This is where a penchant for special pleading comes in handy.

The Amalgam, Roberts tells us, is a “rather dental name”. But even this lame bitchiness is a distinctive form of contrivance; it’s a common strategy in populist anti-intellectualism to pretend that a term has only one, maximally mundane, meaning. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Roberts to apply the same rule to Christopher Priest’s corpus. I was waiting for him to show some consistency and declare that the Splinter was “rather wooden” ... but it turns out he’s written an entire novel with that title; obviously, grounds to suspend the rule.

Roberts makes a stab at trying to insist that the narrative of the Splinter should have been stripped of phrases like “a whirlwind tour of history” or “armed with the map of weights” when the Splinter has neither whirlwinds nor armies. The endpoint of such a strategy would be to leave virtually nothing of the English language behind, since the vast majority of English etymology ultimately refers to objects that do not exist in the Splinter. Roberts realises his suggestion is untenable and backs away, but then decides that the policy I’ve actually adopted of translating alien thoughts and words into ordinary English should have turned four of the directions used by the Splinterites into “north”, “south”, “west” and “east”.

If Roberts had given a moment’s serious thought to this framing issue — as opposed to just groping around for things to which he could object — he would have understood why the Splinterites’ direction words could not be translated into the English compass points. Zak has come to realise that the Splinter is moving in a circle around a distant point, the Hub. Once this celestial geometry has been spelt out to us, we might usefully visualise the situation by imagining the Splinter’s orbit as the equator of a vast sphere, to which we attach analogous directions to those we attach to the surface of the Earth. But that’s not how ordinary Splinterites think.

To the Splinterites before Zak, the concepts shomal, junub, rarb and sharq refer solely to the pattern of weights, because they know about nothing else; if these terms had been presented to the reader instead as north, south, east and west, it would have strongly suggested either of two false things: that the Splinterites had some pre-existing concept of their world lying on an orbit-embracing sphere, or — even more confusingly to the reader — that the sphere spanned by these directions was the Splinter itself, and if you kept going east in the Splinter you would, as on the Earth, end up where you started. On the Splinter, if you keep going rarb you hit the Incandescence.

A few reviewers complained that they had trouble keeping straight the physical meanings of the Splinterites’ directions. This leaves me wondering if they’ve really never encountered a book before that benefits from being read with a pad of paper and a pen beside it, or whether they’re just so hung up on the idea that only non-fiction should be accompanied by note-taking and diagram-scribbling that it never even occurred to them to do this. I realise that some people do much of their reading with one hand on a strap in a crowded bus or train carriage, but books simply don’t come with a guarantee that they can be properly enjoyed under such conditions.

Roberts goes on to tell us how ugly he finds the choice of direction words; I don’t expect someone with his limited cultural horizons to recognise the joke behind them, but the hundreds of millions of humans who would might raise an eyebrow at the claim of ugliness. (I’ve transliterated as “rarb” a word that is usually rendered “gharb”, but you can imagine how Roberts would have gagged on that. And be prepared for some he-couldn’t-possibly-have-meant-that moments if you Google “junub”; a more common transliteration is “janoub”.)

Roberts picks some desperate nits about jelly babies and rice surviving into the far future. If he’d taken a stand and declared his unshakeable conviction that not one of our descendants would indulge in such arbitrary and meaningless pleasures as eating chilli and rice after the year X, I wouldn’t agree with him, but at least he would have stated a basis on which the events in the book were supposed to be so improbable and anachronistic. As it is, he’s just tossing peanuts, padding out the review with gripes in the hope that it will seem more substantial than it is.

But the pinnacle of desperation comes close to the end, when Roberts quotes some unexceptionable passages from the book describing Roi’s mating with a few male Splinterites. His problem is that most readers of the review would find nothing wrong with these scenes, so he goes on — surreally — to invent a parodic excerpt from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, in which human sex is described in comically clinical detail.

Yes, these are the heights to which possessing a PhD in English will elevate your critical powers: if passage A doesn’t actually ring false just invent something that does, and pretend that the two are equivalent. Any high school student or undergraduate who tried this in an essay would be failed.

Roi’s species does not attach the same emotional and cultural values to mating as humans do. As Roberts understands perfectly well, most of what makes his invented passage so ridiculous actually turns on those values. Without the misdirection of his faux-James, the suggestion that Roi wouldn’t ponder the mechanics of the mating process loses all force; once she emerges from the buzz of cooperation, she is alert, inquisitive and reflective about everything around her, and there is nothing to compel her to treat this any differently.

That it is the raw world around her that passes constantly through Roi’s mind is what Roberts really can’t bear; to him, such an engagement with reality is unspeakably vulgar and trivial. It’s his right to feel that way, and to share his feelings with anyone who’s interested, but it’s a shame he can’t summon up the courage of his convictions and present this response without the adornment of contrived arguments, special pleading, and rhetorical strategies as laughably dishonest and incompetent as those on display here.


[1] Alan Turing: the Enigma by Andrew Hodges, Vintage, 1992.

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